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Tue 20 October 2020
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Adrian Goldberg explains how big Premier League clubs have hatched a plan to ‘save’ lower league sides, while compounding their own dominance over the game

English football is facing its greatest crisis in decades. Dozens of lower-division clubs are fearful for their futures after a COVID-necessitated ban on crowd attendances. The situation is dire.

Perhaps inevitably, given the game’s unerring instinct for greed and division, some of their wealthy Premier League counterparts have responded by delivering a sharp smack in the mouth, disguised as a helping hand.

From the outside, and if you don’t understand the delicate ecology of professional football, the rescue plan led by Liverpool and Manchester United might appear generous.

The Premier League, which pulls in more than £3 billion a year in domestic and global television deals, would hand £250 million to its cash-stricken counterparts across the three divisions of the English Football League (EFL).

The apparent charity wouldn’t end there, either. 

The Football Association, which administers grassroots football, would receive an immediate £100 million windfall, alongside grants to improve stadiums in the Championship, League One and League Two.

In their current impoverished state, the 72 clubs of the EFL might feel that they are being made an offer they can’t refuse.

The economic facts are stark. Most EFL clubs rely on fans coming through the gate for anywhere between 60-80% of their income, once you add in the value of hospitality, stadium advertising and merchandise sales.

Deprived of this income for the foreseeable future, their financial prospects are bleak.

Conservative MP Damian Collins, former chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said recently: “My fear is that we could see multiple club failures this Autumn as clubs simply run out of cash.”


More Than a Game

Football clubs sustain many communities and their disappearance should not be under-estimated.

Alongside the financial loss – which will also affects pubs and chippies near the stadium, as well as the cleaners, caterers and admin staff employed by the clubs – there’s a more profound sense of loss within the community.

When Bury FC was expelled by the Football League in 2019, fans likened the loss to “a death in the family”, as they compared shared memories and mourned the absence of a rare local institution that gave them a collective identity, regardless of age, race, class or gender.

The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden seems to accept that football has a role beyond that of an ordinary business but, like many of his colleagues, he seems blinded by the dizzying wealth of the top clubs.

The question is: why would the strange assortment of oligarchs, oil states and US investment firms behind Premier League teams be inclined to rescue struggling institutions, representing mostly unfashionable English towns and cities?

It is hard to imagine that, say, Liverpool owner John W. Henry, the billionaire US stock market investor and global sports entrepreneur, spends much time worrying about the problems of Scunthorpe, Walsall or Crawley.

In any case, the Premier League already has financial problems of its own, having itself lost more than £1 billion through the absence of supporters – even if the cushion of global television income worth several billion has ensured that its members can at least meet the exorbitant wage demands of top players. 

However, it is easy to comprehend the logic of the bail-out deal when it is appreciated that it was never actually designed to truly help its recipients.

When the Premier League was founded in 1992, it was wrecking ball designed to destroy the solidarity of the original Football League and ensure that the rich got richer at a time when satellite television was coming on-stream.

Under the old set up, clubs in the three divisions below the elite received 50% of the overall television deal. Following the breakaway, that share has slumped to just 12.5% – not quite crumbs, but a smaller slice of a much larger cake.

The fine print of the Coronavirus ‘rescue package’ would further entrench this inequality, granting the so-called ‘big six’ clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea) disproportionate voting rights, permanently weakening those below.

Much of the additional financing for the EFL would come from reducing the Premier League from 20 clubs to 18 – a move likely to exclude clubs from working-class ‘Red Wall’ towns such as Burnley and West Bromwich.

Kieran Maguire, a football finance expert at Liverpool University told Byline Times: “This is all very Machiavellian and I do not think this is in the best interests of anybody who has a love for English football.”

He sees it as the latest step towards a European super-league that would operate as a “closed shop” or cartel, shutting out potential rivals.

The Premier League itself has officially criticised one of the architects of the plan, its former chief executive Rick Parry, who is now chairman of the EFL.

Parry claims that the deal is “in the best interests of the game as a whole”, but few believe him – not even the Culture Secretary, who has threatened football (not for the first time) with a Government review unless a means can be found to help smaller clubs.

But his backbench colleague Damian Collins has a different idea, advocating a taxpayer bail-out for struggling clubs. He is also calling for the creation of a new football finance watchdog to curb the excessive spending that made clubs vulnerable even before COVID-19 hit.

It might not be perfect, but as well as offering a financial lifeline, it would set a precedent that EFL clubs are worth investing in – rather than leaving them to languish among English football’s permanent second division.


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